From Milton Berle to Flip Wilson to Divine to RuPaul, charismatic men in showbiz have donned women's clothing to amuse and enthrall. Drag's been seen often on stage and screen since the earliest days of entertainment, but it wasn't until the late '80s and early '90s that the art form emerged from the underground to infiltrate nightlife — at least in America — in an immersive and impactful way. And by the time Ru went mainstream, hitting the charts with her song “Supermodel” and soon after scoring her own talk show on VH1, we had already had androgynous stars from the U.K. like David Bowie, Boy George and Pete Burns seducing us with the eye candy of straight and queer men in makeup making music, not to mention audacious theatrical examples like Harvey Fierstein in La Cage Aux Folles and John Waters' cha-cha heel wearing muse in cult classics Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble.
In L.A., the time was ripe for cross-dressin' excess and revelry. West Hollywood clubs were serving it too, with lip-sync shows featuring bodacious boys channeling Donna Summer, Cher and requisite divas. WeHo, of course, remains one of the most plentiful nightlife options in terms of drag entertainment and staples Hamburger Mary's, Rage and The Abbey have been consistently showcasing it over the past few decades, starting back in the day alongside now-gone gay grottos such Peanuts/7969 (hosted by Viva Sex), the La Cage stage show (starring the magical Gyspy), The Love Lounge, Here and many more.
But other parts of L.A. were getting their own dose of drag glamour. In the '80s, downtown parties including Egg Salad and Plastic Passion saw sprinklings of drag, as did the goth and punk scene with performers such as Rozz Williams, Ginger Coyote and Sean deLear pushing gender fashion boundaries. If you were a “Melrose kid,” aka one who shopped at seminal indie stores like Retail Slut or Vinyl Fetish, chances are you also paid a visit up the street on La Brea for La Plaza bar's festive Mexican drag show.
It's impossible to shout out every queen or L.A. club that championed drag, of course, but we'd be remiss if we didn't highlight performance art legend and former L.A. Weekly receptionist Vaginal “Creme” Davis and her notorious bashes Club Sucker and Bricktops, as well as the Silver Platter in MacCarthur Park and its drag/trans party Wildness, and Shits & Giggles, where the likes of Goddess Bunny and Kitty Leukemia would make appearances. Drag crews like The Court of St. Jacques (with locals including designer Krakt Wheat, Queen Esoterica and Tommy Chiffon) made the scene and threw parties too, while nun-dragged Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence were a staple at big events like L.A. Pride (still are) and much-missed Silver Lake street party, the Sunset Junction Street Fair.
The '90s saw L.A.'s queendom expand in its best known guise beyond Santa Monica Boulevard when DJ Paul V. and Mr. Dan (aka Gina Lotrimin) opened up Dragstrip 66 at Rudolpho's restaurant in Silver Lake. Boasting midnight shows with real singing queens and dancing all night, this mix of gay, straight and everything in bi-tween did more for drag in L.A. during its 20-plus years throwing monthly parties than maybe any other club since. Its inventive themes (“Pajamarama,” “Turban Renewal,” “Jocks & Frocks”) inspired amazing looks and pushed everyone to new creative heights — not unlike RuPaul's Drag Race–themed runway competitions do today.
On the (high)-heels of Dragstrip, several unforgettable L.A. clubs championed flamboyant fellas and faux femmes of all sizes, shapes and colors (a tenant of the scene). New York had Squeezebox (where Hedwig and the Angry Inch came to be), and in L.A. we had Joseph Brooks and Jason Lavitt's Club Makeup, the Neo-glam rock extravaganza held monthly at the El Rey presenting live rock musicians fronted by local drag queens singing rock classics. Hosted first by Torment/Pat Briggs and later one of Hollywood's best known queens, Alexis Arquette/Eva Destruction and her sidekick Candyass, Makeup's mad mix and mirror-compact shaped flyers are the stuff of club legend, and drag royalty including Jackie Beat, Momma and Mz. Allana made their names on its stage, even leading to the formation of a full band called Tranzkuntinental (featuring future RDR contestants Willam Belli, Detox and Kelly Mantle) as singers, scoring gigs at Pride and beyond soon after. Ms. Beat also had her own hot club band, Dirty Sanchez, with party king Mario Diaz. Sadly, both acts broke up several years ago.
Speaking of Drag Race alums, Season 3 winner Raja Gemini got her start go-go dancing at Bryan Rabin's similarly mixed rock & roll dance rager Cherry, alongside other gorgeous girl-boys such as famed Robert Mapplethorpe cohort Constance (who also hosted a fab night at Bar Marmont at the time), Shokra, Girl James and Vida (also reigning at Club Superstar). Held first in Weho and later in Hollywood, Cherry attracted a mix of celebs, rockers and queens weekly with DJs and occasional special events like fashion shows and music performances from visiting NYC queens such as Lady Bunny, Joey Arias and Sherry Vine. It's also where Drag Race producer Thairin Smothers honed his chops as a videographer.
Both Cherry and Makeup were the subjects of E! TV specials called Hollywood Nights, still available for viewing on YouTube, and the mainstream attention they received arguably influenced the slew of pan-sexy parties that followed, many with drag components, including Nacho Nava's Mustache Mondays (where Drag Race contestant Ongina first performed, and Squeaky Blonde and her drag daughter Fade-Dra Phey honed their “Tranimal” aesthetic — later a full-blown art project with photographer Austin Young). Miss Barbie-Q wo-manned the door at Mustache, solidifying the tradition of drag gate-keepers that includes Shits & Giggles/A Club Called Rhonda's ultra-fierce Phyllis Navidad and Tigerheat's vibrant Ingenue The Star (who's still there every Thursday). And let's not forget Mr. Black — too many gorgeous queens hosted to count, but co-promoter Andres Rigal still presents all the biggest names in drag (Alaska Thunderfuck, Mayhem Miller, etc.) these days at his club night called Evita.
Miss Kitty's Parlour and Black Unicorn, where our cover ghouls The Boulet Brothers first championed their freaky, fetishy brand of cross-dress, also deserves noting for its notorious stage shows featuring drag by the likes of Rude-ness (now proprietress of DTLA drag boutique Queen of Angels). The BB's eventually joined forces with other local queens for Dragula, a very-L.A. drag monster mash that turned into their popular TV reality competition. San Francisco's Heklina and her Trannyshack (which did some wild L.A. parties in the mid-'00s bringing the likes of “drag terrorist” Christeene to town) and Peaches Christ, also a frequent SoCal visitor, added to Los Angeles' fabled dragaliciousness after dark. New York may get the most recognition, followed closely by San Francisco, but clearly Los Angeles was a bonafide drag destination long before Drag Race started being filmed here.
By the start of millienium, club kid audaciousness had meshed with drag more exciting ways. Party Monster chronicler James St. James moved to L.A., The Chanel Twins were popping up everywhere and Amanda Lepore was making frequent L.A. appearances. Drag continues to florish in the city to this day, and much like it started, it's about bringing people together — gay and straight. “Straight” bars even host RuPaul's Drag Race viewing parties! Still, the queer and alt nightlife scene is where this artform florished and continues to do so. The biggest props may have to go to the long-running Cavern Club in the basement of Casita Del Campo, which grew of the Dragstrip events and feature the likes of Jer Ber Jones, Chico Angels, Tammie Brown, Drew Droege, John Cantwell (Love Connie) and most of the queens mentioned here, all continuing to make their bawdy, beauty mark on our city.
From drag brunches bringing daytime unrealness to eateries on weekends, to venues such as The Offbeat Bar, Akbar, Fubar, Faultline, Precinct and The Lash, to promoters and performers such as Chi Chi LaRue (now a sex-positive shop-owner), Billy Fransceca (still putting the ho in Weho clubbing), Rhea Litre (Dragapalooza, Voss events), Johnny Love (Soft Leather) and Weekly contributor Danny Fuentes (Sex Cells) championing drag, trans and gender fluid fetes. There are so many more, and over the years, we've tried to celebrate them all. L.A.'s drag is as diverse and thriving as the city itself. Here's hoping it reigns in L.A. for eternity.